Movies

Why are There No Indians in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

With respect to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is a fair amount of “What about-ism” these days. What about Churchill? What about the French? As One Thing after Another has pointed out in a previous post, some critics are unhappy that Nolan did not include the stories of various figures or groups in his film. Now it is the turn of those who complain that Nolan has left Indians out of his tale.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/dunkirk-indians-world-war.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

One Thing after Another has a two-part response to these criticism. First, Nolan’s ambition consisted of presenting the experience of Dunkirk, not relating the story of a battle in the round like, say, The Longest Day, or other such films associated with “blockbuster history.” In doing so, Nolan took British memories of Dunkirk as a plucky evacuation and recast them into a harrowing survival story (military historian Robert Citino claims this movie presents the best rendition of what helpless infantry must have felt like when attacked by Stukas). As this blog has argued earlier, many of Nolan’s critics appear to desire a semi-documentary that details the doings of everybody on the beach when that was never his ambition. In large part, they desire this treatment because they want his film to bear the large and unwieldy load of rectifying British amnesia about the contributions of others during the evacuation (and the entire war for that matter).

And that brings us to the second part of this blog’s response. In the New York Times, Yasmin Khan complains that Dunkirk allows Britons to continue ignoring the imperial dimension of World War II. Why, then, did Nolan not show Indian troops at Dunkirk or present the narrative through Indian eyes? The answer is that there were probably very few Indians at Dunkirk. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 men on the rolls. According to Khan’s India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, 53,000 Indians enlisted in the army during the first eight months of the war. In other words, when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, the Indian Army still numbered under a quarter million men, not enough to spare many soldiers abroad, guard the volatile North-West Frontier, and maintain domestic order. Not surprisingly, then, the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) order of battle for 1940 reveals that there were no Indian combat units in France. Khan and others have pointed out that elements of the Royal India Army Service Corps (see photo above) were present in France and made it to the beaches for evacuation. But the RIASC only ever sent four companies to Franceabout 1,000 men. This unit would have constituted a drop in the bucket compared to the 225,000-odd British troops stranded on the beach. As for the lascars, those Indian sailors who constituted around a quarter of the British Merchant Navy’s strength, the evidence seems to indicate that they were not as numerous at Dunkirk as Sunny Singh believes. A large majority of British troops rescued from the beach were picked up by the Royal Navy’s smaller warships (destroyers, minesweepers, and so on) or vessels pressed into service by the Royal Navy (mainly ferry boats or those involved in Britain’s coastal trade). The latter, to judge from W. J. R. Gardner’s The Evacuation from Dunkirk: “Operation Dynamo”, 26 May-4 June 1940, the standard reference work on the subject, were captained by officers from the Royal Navy Reserve, and they generally appear to have been manned by British crews.

India’s enormous contribution to the British Empire’s war effort (as chronicled recently by both Khan’s excellent book and Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) came later and elsewhere in the form of men, resources, and production. The Indian Army, which grew to just under 2.5 million men, played a very significant role in the Middle East, a commitment that spilled over into North Africa and thence to Italy and Greece. This force also proved particularly important in driving the Japanese out of Burma (now Myanmar). These missions were generally in keeping with the traditions of the Indian Army which consisted of safeguarding nearby imperial interests, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southeast Asia (the one big exception came during World War I in the fall of 1914 when about one-fifth of the BEF in France consisted of Indian troops). And that is part of the reason why India’s contribution to the war has often been overlooked by both Britons and Indians; each has their reasons for ignoring the British Empire during World War II. British memories of the conflict stress how Britons heroically fought “alone” against the Germans for 18 months after France collapsed. This memory also tends to emphasize the action in Europe; there is less interest in the imperial dimension of the war because the empire is now dead and gone. At the same time, as Khan explains in her book, Indians also do not seem particularly interested in the role they played during World War II, largely because that role is difficult to incorporate in the nationalist narrative about India’s movement to independence in the 1940s. How does one tell the story of the almost 2.5 million Indian soldiers who faithfully did the British Empire’s bidding just a few short years before India’s “tryst with destiny”?

There is a movie yet to be made about Indians’ contribution to World War II that deals with the complexity of their relationship to the conflict and the British Empire. Dunkirk is not the setting for that movie. Such a film should be set in the Middle East or North Africa. Better yet, it it should take place in Burma, where eight of the thirteen infantry division that served in Bill Slim’s 14th Army were Indian. Their victories at Imphal and Kohima in the spring of 1944, which dealt Japan its greatest defeats on land during World War II, led to the recovery of Burma. It’s pretty clear that a British audience would not show much interest in such a film. But would Indians be in the mood to watch a movie that showed them in the service of an empire that they believe they are well rid of?

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Advertisements

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Ben Affleck and Slavery

Affleck Finding Your Roots

Surely, you have heard something about Ben Affleck’s recent collision with history. If not, One Thing after Another is more than happy to fill you in. . . .

You may or may not have heard of a PBS show entitled Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. The show uses genealogy and genetic testing to investigate the family history of celebrity guests. The research is compiled in a so-called “book of life,” and the highlight of most episodes has Gates assisting the guests in understanding their book. The second season ended in November 2014, and celebrities have included Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Walters, Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart, Stephen King, Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Sting, George Stephanopoulos, Deval Patrick, and . . . Ben Affleck.

Our story begins, strangely enough, last year with the hacking of Sony by an organization calling itself the Guardians of Peace. The United States government alleges that the Guardians of Peace were really working for North Korea, but a number of cyber security experts have questioned that charge. Whatever the case, a number of Sony’s hacked emails and documents ended up on the WikiLeaks web site last week in an easily searchable database. News organizations immediately began trawling through the mass of material, and the Daily Mail eventually found an interesting exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures, concerning Ben Affleck’s appearance on the show.

According to the emails (which were exchanged in July 2014, about three months before the episode aired in October), Finding Your Roots discovered that Affleck had an ancestor who owned slaves, and the movie star was putting pressure on Gates and PBS to omit that fact from the show.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3043803/Ben-Affleck-wanted-slave-owner-ancestor-censored-Finding-Roots-PBS-documentary-s-host-covered-leaked-emails-reveal.html

Gates wrote to Lynton, “Here’s my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Lynton responded with the following observation: “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky.” In other words, it all depended on how many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor. Both agreed that too many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor to keep the finding a secret. In subsequent messages, Gates recognized that editing out the ancestor at Affleck’s request would violate PBS rules. Not only that, but he understood that if the news ever did leak out, it would embarrass Affleck and compromise the show’s integrity. How prescient!

In the event, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not appear in the episode (which ran in October 2014), and Gates’ worst fears came true. As a result of the Sony leak, Affleck has been embarrassed and the show’s integrity has been compromised.

You can see a preview of Affleck’s episode here:

Once the story broke, Gates offered the following explanations for his actions on the PBS web site:

http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2015/statements-finding-your-roots/

The slave-owning ancestor, Gates argues, ended up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of offering “the most compelling narrative.” According to Gates, he and the producers did not accede to Affleck’s request to protect him. Rather, they sought to produce the most interesting story.

Affleck’s explanation, which appeared on his Facebook page, is somewhat different:

Affleck’s points amount to the following. He was embarrassed by his ancestor, and he tried to influence the PBS producers in the same way that he has influenced his directors in the past. He saw nothing improper in this behavior since Finding Your Roots is not a news program and therefore does not have a responsibility to present the whole truth. At the end of the day, of course, he regrets his decision.

Now that the program has blown up in everybody’s face, PBS has launched an internal investigation into the circumstances associated with the production of this episode:

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/blogs/ombudsman/2015/04/21/who-knew-not-us-pbs-now-says-about-roots-controversy/

A broad spectrum of reactions characterizes the web’s attitude toward this story. On one end, we have the following piece by Brian Lowry at Variety:

http://variety.com/2015/tv/columns/ben-affleck-pbs-show-slavery-backlash-1201477211/

Lowry describes the whole incident as a tempest in a teapot. The gist of his argument is that Finding Your Roots is a “a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy” and “a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.” The only reason the story has attracted so much attention, Lowry charges, is because of the way it was leaked, widespread dislike of Affleck (only compounded by his prima donna behavior), and a desire among conservatives to get rid of PBS.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post, making a very different argument:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/04/19/even-pbs-isnt-immune-to-hollywoods-big-pr-machine-or-the-influence-of-ben-affleck/

It is difficult to summarize briefly McDonald’s position, but the main thrust of her argument is that when you add Affleck’s wish to protect his “brand” to PBS’s desire to obtain a larger and younger audience, this kind of thing was bound to happen. And this kind of thing, she argues, is bad. Because of its distinct mission, PBS has a duty to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the public interest is not served by gliding over the issue of slavery and presenting what amounts to a sugar-coated version of Affleck’s family tree.

One Thing after Another, as usual, judges as a historian. While Lowry and McDonald do not see eye-to-eye on the overall significance of this Finding Your Roots episode, they do agree on one thing: PBS’s desire to obtain higher ratings by developing a show of this sort left it vulnerable to such an incident. PBS found itself confronted by an age-old question: how does one present educational material in an attractive and interesting fashion? PBS’s mission consists of creating

content that educates, informs and inspires. To do this, PBS offers programming that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures and programs that expose America to the worlds of music, theater, dance and art.

PBS also describes itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” (See http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/ and http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/mission/.)

And yet, what good was this classroom or stage if no one was watching? PBS naturally felt the pressure of obtaining higher ratings.

When it came to Finding Your Roots, the public broadcaster opted for “edutainment” (One Thing after Another’s favorite new word) which ended up being a volatile mix of education and entertainment. For this reason, the various players in the story saw their roles very differently. In his explanation of what happened, Gates the professor wrote about “editorial integrity” and unlocking “new ways to learn about our past.” In other words, Gates subscribed to the idea of the classroom. Affleck the actor wrote of lobbying Gates as if the latter were a director and reminded everyone that Finding Your Roots “isn’t a news program.” From Affleck’s perspective, the show was, well, “a show.”

Even if PBS created an unstable situation that was bound to compromise itself, one cannot help but be disappointed with the principals involved. Affleck described himself as growing up in a politically active family of “left-wing Democrats” (his mother, as Finding Your Roots revealed, was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s). He of all people ought to have realized how a discussion regarding his ancestor could have contributed to a dialogue about slavery—something that is still very relevant in this day and age. When compared to the reactions of other celebrities who have been informed that their ancestors were slaveholders (Anderson Cooper, to name one), Affleck’s refusal to own his family’s past seems graceless.

Gates’ role in this incident is almost inexplicable. He is literary scholar, not a historian, and he famously wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “ending the slavery blame-game” (i.e. African-Americans should not use their enslavement to obtain reparations from the United States government). Still, he must be thoroughly aware of the destructive role that slavery has played in American life, and he of all people ought to have seen how fruitful a discussion of Affleck’s ancestor could have been. Gates’ emails indicate that he knew Affleck’s request ran contrary to the spirit (if not the editorial rules) of the show. It seems clear that he was cowed by Affleck’s “megastar” status, and Lowry is probably not far off the mark when he describes Gates’ position as “spineless.” Then again, Gates might have felt his position was fundamentally undermined by the show’s straddling of education and entertainment.

One Thing after Another is both depressed and cheered by this incident. On the one hand, it is clear that PBS has not fulfilled its role as classroom, and an interesting opportunity to discuss slavery has been missed. Gates claimed he left out Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor for the sake of presenting a more interesting narrative. But what better captures the great paradox that is American history than the ancestry of a man whose mother was a Freedom Rider and whose great-great-great-grandfather (on his mother’s side, no less) was a slaveholder? What better encapsulation of the American experience could there be? Unfortunately, all the brouhaha about Finding Your Roots has revolved around Affleck and Gates’ dishonesty, not the issue they sought to elide.

And yet, there is perhaps some cause for hope. Affleck believed the information about his ancestor was so powerful that he had to keep it under wraps. One Thing after Another advises that in contemplating this incident, you should not seek to emulate Affleck’s attempt to suppress history. Rather, like he did, you should recognize its power.

Selma, The Imitation Game, and Hollywood’s Duty to History

selma-movie

No doubt you remember the 2015 Academy Awards which took place just over a month ago. There was some controversy surrounding two films–Selma and the Imitation Game–that brought up an age-old question: to what extent should Hollywood get history right?

Selma, of course, covers the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, focusing mainly on Martin Luther King, Jr. The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing’s activities during World War II, namely his participation in the attempt to crack the codes produced by Germany’s Enigma machine. Neither film did particularly well at the Oscars, and both were criticized for their historical inaccuracies. Selma received only two nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song, winning only in the latter category) while The Imitation Game received eight but came away with only the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Did members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snub Selma and The Imitation Game because they had concerns about historical inaccuracies in the films? Or was it because one film was about the African American struggle for civil rights while the other was a bio-pic about a gay man? Francine Prose, writing in The New York Review of Books blog, seems to think it was a combination of these factors:

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/feb/10/case-for-hollywood-history/

Prose argues that discussions of these films’ historical inaccuracies did undermine their chances with the Academy, but she also suggests that these discussions were a cover for critics’ discomfort with the subject matter of both movies. As she puts it, “perhaps the real source of controversy isn’t the question of truth in historical films, but rather the subjects of historical films—and how vexed those subjects are.” She concludes that “it’s so much easier and less threatening to talk about whether (or how much of) a film is ‘true’ than to confront the unpleasant—and indisputable—truth: that racial and sexual prejudice have persisted so long past the historical eras in which these films are set.”

Prose may have a point here, but One Thing after Another does not have the power to search the hearts of Academy members and determine whether their objection to historical inaccuracy are sincere or merely a blind for more pernicious thoughts. Moreover, One Thing after Another believes historical inaccuracy does interfere with the ability to engage with important questions arising from movies such as these. If a film wishes to be taken seriously as it addresses significant social issues–that is, if it seeks to educate its audience–it has a duty to get the facts correct. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is under no obligation to get the facts right because it does not have pretensions of enlightening its audience, but films like Selma and the Imitation Game do have that obligation.

Prose does not seem to believe in that obligation. In her “case for Hollywood history,” she asserts that she grew up in a period when expectations concerning the historical accuracy of films was rather low. Indeed, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, viewers and critics did not seem so interested in this matter. She also relates her experience of watching Selma with her eight-year-old granddaughter. Much of the movie went over her granddaughter’s head, but she emerged from the theater with an appreciation of the demonstrators’ bravery and an understanding of why the civil rights movement was necessary. Prose remarks, “Later, I thought, my granddaughter and I can deal with the film’s historical mistakes.”

Among Prose’s comments, two points jump out at One Thing after Another. First, Prose’s standard for historical accuracy is rather low. She learned the following from watching films in her childhood:

What got my attention was the fact that men named Zola and Dreyfus existed, and that a woman had won the Nobel Prize in science: a concept that came as a something of shock to a little girl growing up during the height (or the depths) of the Mad Men 1950s. I recall being enthralled by the achievements of Pasteur (he saved a little boy from rabies!) and the Dreyfus case. And my fascination with Ivanhoe and Robin Hood persisted.

And then, of course, we hear about her granddaughter, the second-grader, learning some basic ideas from Selma. According to Prose, we should not demand very much from a film. It is a gateway that may lead us to history, but we should not ask it to do anything very serious in that respect.

Second, Prose assumes that everybody else has the capacity to deal with a film’s historical mistakes “later.” One Thing after Another wonders how many viewers of films have the capacity to do that. As Elizabeth Drew asks, in a post (on the very same blog) criticizing Selma‘s inaccuracies, “Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it?”

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/08/selma-vs-history/

One of the big inaccuracies in Selma that has attracted much attention is its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson who is depicted as opposing the voting rights bill. Does it matter whether or not Johnson actually supported such a bill? Drew thinks so, and if we want to understand how legal discrimination was dismantled, we probably ought to know that the President and King were more or less on the same page. In other words, while the marches and King and Malcolm X were necessary to passing a voting rights bill, they were not sufficient–the president also played a significant role–an important lesson on which Americans ought to reflect in their capacity as citizens.

imitation_game_a_p

The Imitation Game is much more profoundly flawed, and its mistakes interfere much more with a true appreciation its subject, as Christian Caryl points out:

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/dec/19/poor-imitation-alan-turing/

In the film, Turing is caricatured as a social misfit/lone “scientist” who almost singlehandedly broke German code during World War II. Such a view does a disservice to Turing while reinforcing stereotypes of how science works. To be honest, the film does not even really engage seriously with the science and mathematics behind the massive multi-national effort that led to the progressive decryption of German codes (which involved involved  significant breakthroughs by Polish and French mathematicians) . That’s a shame, because if we should care about Turing at all, it is as a mathematician. At the same time, we also ought to realize that thousands of people were involved in the attempt to read German codes, and while Turing was among the most prominent, he was still part of a highly talented team that included mathematicians, linguists, historians, chess champions, crossword puzzle experts, and military officers. That fact points to something important: while Turing was considered eccentric, he was not socially inept. Moreover, he possessed a variety of talents–among other things, he was an Olympic-level, long-distance runner. As Caryl argues, “either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.” The film seems to have opted for the latter course.

In addition to these kinds of mistakes, The Imitation Game is not entirely frank about Turing’s sexuality in particular or mid-20th century British attitudes toward homosexuality in general. As Caryn puts it, the film is “desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto. . . . The Imitation Game is a film that prefers its gay men decorously disembodied.” Benedict Cumberbatch has responded to this criticism by arguing that the film is not an exploration of Turing’s “sex life” and that if viewers demand to see sex scenes in such a film, “all is lost for any kind of subtle storytelling.” But can a film convert Turing into a gay martyr without dwelling on the thing for which he was martyred? At the same time, the film does not really capture the context within which Turing operated as a gay man. Turing was actually quite open about his sexuality to his friends who accepted him for who he was. Such an attitude should not surprise us. England’s great public schools (e.g. Eton, Rugby, Charterhouse, and Harrow), along with Cambridge and Oxford Universities, had long tolerated gay sub-cultures. In other words, Turing’s world was not entirely homophobic. It was when his homosexuality was discovered by the police–purely by accident after his boyfriend had stolen some items from his house–that Turing ran afoul of the law and was subjected to a bizarre and barbarous punishment. However, his “treatment” via stilboestrol lasted for only a year (not until his death as the movie suggets), and by all accounts, Turing bore this burden courageously instead of falling apart as he did in the film. In other words, Turing was a complex person living in a world that expressed mixed attitudes towards his homosexuality. And if we understand that person living in that world, we come to a finer understanding of the questions that surround the relationship between the two.

One Thing after Another does not want to make a fetish of historical accuracy in films, but if films pretend to educate us on various social issues, these issues must be placed in their proper context so we can learn how to address them. Students as well as the public often perceive long-standing social issues through two lenses. One sees them as static (e.g. racism always manifested itself in pretty much the same way) while the other sees them as problems that occur elsewhere–either in the past or in another part of the world (e.g. racism only happened in the bad old days but we are fine now). What historians seek to do is restore some dynamism to these questions because in human affairs nothing stands still for very long, and everything is actually rather more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Understanding the often changing circumstances under which social issues emerge is extremely important to understanding that tension itself.